Social media addiction?

Someone who isn’t quite as connected to social media was asking me about my experience of it recently and even as I tried to explain it, I realized I never really thought about it much.

I’ve had a Facebook account from before it was cool, 2007. When I first logged on, I was eager to friend family members and friends from far away. It didn’t take long for me to become a frequent poster. When friends in Italy and Peru logged in I was ecstatic.

I have a long complicated history with Facebook that I won’t go in to here, suffice it to say I enjoyed it a lot – until I didn’t any more. I am here writing today because my friend’s questions about my attraction and affection (addiction?) for social media started me thinking. Why do I like it so much?

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A tweep (a friend on Twitter) of mine tweeted last month that she found herself caught up in “tweeting for her audience,” saying that she felt that she was tweeting to impress people, and that she didn’t want to do that. I began to wonder about my own tweets. Why was I tweeting?

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I thought about it a lot and I realized that really, I tweet for my best friend from MN more than any one else. Even when we lived in the same state, we didn’t really see each other that often (except when we lived together). For a time we had a Sunday night date to watch TV together. But we each had our lives and our other obligations, and so that eventually ended. Facebook posts and later tweets were my way of staying in contact with her. I have a few other friends that I tried to rope in to my addiction for the same reason – to stay close to them. But I think there is more to it than that.

Anyone who has known me in the last 11 years will have heard me talk about living in Minnesota and how lonely I was there. As an adult I have lived in several countries and five different cities in the US. And in all of those places, I made friends within a few weeks of arriving. In Italy, I made friends with the people from the park before I could say more than a dozen words in Italian. Even in Egypt I made friends with the people in my neighborhood (Shobra) using the most rudimentary Arabic.

Minnesota was different. In Minnesota, the first few “friends” I made turned out to be – well – to put it nicely – they turned out to not be friends. And I have to add here that I’m no hermit. I joined groups, sang in choirs, and even tried to make friends at grad school once I got there. My first year in MN was the first year I became really depressed, slowed down, tired all the time depressed. I’m not blaming MN for my depression, but it was in there.

The thing was, I’d been surrounded by groups of friends all my life, and suddenly I had no one but the people I worked with. They were pleasant people, people I wanted to get to know better, so I offered to go out for coffee or lunch or to the dog park the way I had in the past when getting to know new people. And while many people said, “hey, that’s a great idea,” very few ever accepted my invitation. There was a person I worked with who seemed to have so much in common with me and we had great conversations whenever we worked together, and though she always said, “let’s do that” when I suggested meeting up outside of work, she never could make it.

Long grey days...

After about a year in MN, I finally went to see a therapist and told her how alone I felt. She told me that there were regional norms for making friends and that it wasn’t entirely about me and my presentation (although my straight-forward attitude was not really considered particularly attractive).

She gave me three rules (although now I can only remember two):

1. Minnesotans (and others in the region) “fill up” on friends. The fill-up is individualized, some people may have five great friends some only three, but either way, once they have them, you cannot get in. Unless one of them (god forbid) moves away (however chances are very good that they will move back eventually). So even though you have lots in common and have a great chat…they aren’t going to accept your invitation to coffee because they already have all the friendship commitments they can handle.

2. Minnesotans (and others in the region) need to see you around for a while before they are going to accept your invite or invite you themselves. She told me the number is not “set in stone,” but she suggested I attend a church for a couple of years and see what happens.

I know Minnesotans don’t like to hear me talk about these things, and I realize they are generalized regional rules, so of course not everyone adheres to them, but I’m just saying that the first time anyone invited me to dinner before choir I had been singing with the same group for 2 years.

If you squint a little you can see me there with my bald head...

And just so you don’t think I am making all this up, there are other sources that say similar things. Here you’ll find a story from MPR about a group call Twin Cities Transplants that was started in 1990 to help transplants manage the difficulties of Minnesotan life, now there’s a Meetup version of the group. Here is another piece by MPR about how out-of-towners are missed once they ar gone. Even Garrison Keillor jokes about how a family living in his mythical town Lake Woebegone have been there for 30 years but are still considered “outsiders.” Just to prove I’m not completely biased, this is a letter is kind of bashing East Coasters for their irritation with Minnesota rules. In my defense, I did live in MN for 11 years, unlike the subject of that letter who didn’t make it through the first winter.

And it did get a little better after I’d been there all that time. I have my very best friend who I miss terribly and tweet frequently and was just making friends with the lovely ladies from the Spades Meetup group just before I left.

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I didn’t come to bash Minnesota, though. The only reason I am bringing it up is that maybe part of my addiction/attraction to social media is related to the intense loneliness I have felt for the last 10 years. It was an experience that was radically different to the previous 10 years of my life.

In Denver, I saw my friends almost every day – not the same friends, but one friend or another. I went to the gym several times a week with one friend, to the movies nearly every week with another. I had a regular dinner date with another friend and spent some time at my spiritual community.

http://www.milehichurch.org/

Mile Hi in Denver

In Italy, I saw several of my same friends every weekday for several hours as we rode the same city buses together. Three times a week I was at band practice with other friends – two nights with my partner’s band and another night with my own.

Singing with Walter

Even in Egypt I spent hours nearly every day with friends of the family. Once I came back to the states (Georgia) I made friends at work and in my spiritual community and saw those people three or four nights a week and usually spent another two with family.

In Minnesota, (once we didn’t live together) I had occasional dinners with my rumi, choir practice and there at the end of my stay, great games of Spades. All of these meetings were fabulous – no lie – but they were not quite enough. So I supplemented with Facebook and later Twitter and Skype to help me through my days.

I like the feeling that my friends in MN, GA, IL, Peru, Milan and Cairo know a little about my every day life. I like hearing about their days, sharing laughs and commiserating. I enjoy meeting like minded people on Twitter, other PhD candidates, students, activists and workout partners. I like having tweeps that encourage me as I try to stay centered, keep my commitments to myself and stay focused on my goals.

I don’t worry that I am posting on Twitter to make myself look better or to garner fans. I don’t imagine that my posts on Facebook make people think I’m awesome. I just want to stay in touch with the people I love who are far away. And I think that my long, lonely stay in MN increased the attraction of these methods of staying in touch because for a while they were my only real, positive connection with the people I care about.

So there you have it. Facebook has been something of a lifeline for me for the last five years, and Twitter stepped in when Facebook didn’t do it for me any more. Am I addicted? I really don’t think so. Will I be stopping any time soon? Not likely. 🙂

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